Birds of Paradise

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

Tempo Festival of Dance 2009
Leigh Sawmill Café, Auckland | October 16-17
Ascension Vineyard, Matakana | October 24-25

The rustic timber surrounds of the Leigh Sawmill Café at first seem an unlikely place for a show described as “an opulent and flamboyant avant-garde burlesque cabaret”, but during the efforts involved in getting there something of the intent of the producers starts to dawn. For Birds of Paradise (directed and produced by Morag Brown) is not so much a show as an experience. It provided an opportunity to escape Auckland on a warm and sunny Friday afternoon (we got away well before the traffic jam started on the Bridge) and laze into a glass of rose at Matakana before claiming a front row table for a pre-show dinner at Sawmill.

This is not a restaurant review so I’ll refrain from mentioning the food except to say that the bird-themed menu was beautifully cooked in the slow-food style, with great attention to detail. Service was friendly if a little too relaxed. Perhaps the ambitious menu combined with a full house was one factor in the delayed start of the show, which finally got under way 40 minutes after the advertised start time. Usually this wouldn’t be a problem except that a show with a run time of two and a half hours started at 9.40 pm, making for a late drive back to Auckland for those of us unlucky enough to have work the next morning.

This is one quibble among many small quibbles which in the end didn’t detract from the overall experience. The show itself—a cabaret-like blend of dance, theatre, acrobatics, wearable art and music united by a common theme of “exploring bird behaviour”—certainly pulled out all the stops in terms of opulence. Its staging used the idiosyncratic space well, taking advantage of its split levels and at times using the element of surprise (a head or body popping out from a previously unsuspected space). Unfortunately, the crowded floor made the procession of the “birds” through the audience awkward (although intimate), and the placement of the speakers meant that the front row sitting forward of them had a hard time making out the words.

This is not a narrative piece, more a pastiche of acts by some superbly talented performers. Jonny Brugh as a younger and more quizzical caricature of David Attenborough, did a great job as a character MC, maintaining the bird theme through a variety of items. He also confidently and smoothly covered over the technical gremlins which inevitably will dog an opening night. I was more confused over Brownlie’s character—she appeared first as a Victorian tui who strips to become a caterpillar who later turns into a butterfly… and then reappeared as the tui/Victorian naturalist who becomes a love interest for Brugh’s character. This should give some idea of the complexity of the show, which moved very fast (perhaps too fast) through a great range of costume changes, stories and ideas.

Perhaps the show could have done with some editing. But then maybe we are meant to just sit back and enjoy the spectacle without worrying too much about how it all fits together. The performers coped well with costume changes and movement in a tiny stage space, although often the stage seemed crowded. Unfortunately the stage seemed to limit the dancers. We missed out on the fast, graceful split-second turns that Vivio and Greydis, champion Cuban salsa dancers, are known for; on the other hand, their slow, mesmerizing pas de deux showcased their skill as actors.

The other dancers were each outstanding in their own right. My personal favourite of the night were Georgie Goater and Mike Holland as DIY bower birds, bringing both nuanced comedy and intimacy to their pas de deux. Mika, resplendent in Izzy Miyake, was the world’s cheekiest Kokako; native birds were well represented in the lineup of feathery fantasies. Considerable effort had clearly gone into researching bird calls, which were reproduced with commendable vocal accuracy.

The show was advertised as burlesque, and there was plenty of leg and arm on show (under layers of frilly bustles or sequins). Surprise highlight of the night was jazz singer Caitlin Smith who astounded not only with her voice, but also with her svelte body and her dance moves. The only part of the show which involved actual stripping was the item by burlesque queen Leda Petit, whose birdbath routine induced wows and probably some sweating among the mainly middle aged, well heeled crowd.

A character all on its own is the costuming. Brownlie designed many of the amazingly detailed outfits, with major contributions from Trelise Cooper, Brooke Tyson, corsetry by Flo Foxberry and Missy Milner. The soundtrack, consisting of original tracks by Sean James Donelly blended with an eclectic selection of music ranging from jazz to electronica, nicely complimented the show as did the simple lighting (special mention should be given to Otis Mase for heroic manipulation of the follow spot).

All in all, Birds of Paradise lives up to its promise of decadent opulence. It is more spectacle than thought, and there’s moments when it all seems a bit chaotic, but there’s enough moments of cheeky intelligence to keep even the thinkers among us entertained. For the rest of us, the feathers, frills and wine will more than satisfy.